The month of February, the month of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, is recognized as Black History Month. It was initially proclaimed by the distinguished Black historian, Carter G. Woodson in 1926 as a counter to the omission or often racist portrayal of African Americans in the standard works on American history and school curricula. In recent years, scholars have been correcting that history, portraying the history of slavery and Reconstruction in a much more accurate light and paying attention to the great contributions Black people have made to our development as a nation. It is fitting that we celebrate Black History Month today in the face of efforts by reactionary politicians (who are also no friends of unions and working people) to push the clock back on the teaching of this history. It is also fitting that we, as a website devoted to the cause of labor, note the contributions of African Americans to the building of the labor movement and the important role they play in it today.

Although there were numerous actions by Black workers and tenant farmers in the South during the 19th century, their incorporation into the industrial work force really began with the Great Migration of the early 20th century when about a million Blacks fled the Jim Crow South to seek greater opportunity in the rising factories in Northern states. It was still an uphill battle. The early unions did not welcome them. The conservative AFL craft unions largely refused them membership, which meant they were excluded from higher paying jobs and union-negotiated benefits. Particularly notorious was the Plumbers Union, headed in later years by George Meany, who subsequently headed the AFL-CIO in the 1950’s and 60’s The union was notorious for limiting membership so that it became an inside joke that in order to get in, you needed a wrench, a white skin and a father who was a member.

The big change came with the organization of the CIO in the 1930’s, committed to unionizing all workers in industrial plants into large union locals, irrespective of their race, ethnicity, or their jobs in the plant. Black workers played important roles in building the three largest CIO unions – the United Auto Workers, the United Steel Workers, and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers as well as many other unions. And they have provided leadership in the union movement, from A. Philip Randolph, who headed the largely Black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, to Fred Redmond, a former vice-president of the United Steel Workers and now secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

We salute the contributions that African Americans have made to the labor movement and to the nation as a whole.

After several days on strike, nurses at two hospitals in Nw York City went back to work January 12 after the hospitals agreed to the nurses’ demands to hire more nurses to relieve the understaffing. The strike was less about pay (the two sides had already agreed to a 19.1 pay raise over three years) and more about the chronic nurse understaffing at hospitals that has resulted in higher income for hospitals at the expense of impossible work loads for nurses and sharply reduced care for their patients. Seven thousand nurses at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx had gone out on strike January 8 after talks with the hospital management broke down. The nurses are members of the New York State Nurses Association, their elected union bargaining agent.

They joined thousands more nurses from around the country who are resorting to labor actions to overcome what has become standard practice for hospitals – not hiring enough nurses to adequately perform patient care, causing very difficult working conditions. ” We are not out here for wages,” said Lorena Vivas, a nurse  for 19 years, on the picket line. “We are out here because we want patient safety.” Joining them for a while on the picket line were New York State Attorney General Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine.

The union said that the two hospitals have failed to fill some 1,200 nursing positions. ” Our No. 1 issuer is a crisis of staffing,” Nurses Association President Nancy Hagans declared. “It is an issue that our employers have ignored.”

Under the tentative agreement, which still has to be ratified by the union membership, in addition to the salary increase, the hospitals agreed to a nurse-to-patient ratio with an enforcement mechanism. As of this writing, the exact ratio has not been made public. The hospital committed itself to create new programs for outreach and incentives to attract more nurses. Other details 0f the proposed contract remain hazy.

Hospitals refusing to hire an adequate number of nurses existed even before the Covid pandemic but the disease only made it far worse. It has resulted in nurses leaving the profession in droves around the country, sharply exacerbating the problem. The union says that at Mount Sinai, emergency room nurses have to care for up to 18 patients at a time. Nurses at Montefiore claim the same situation exists there. Existing staff-to-patient ratios are not enforced.

The situation has grown with the increased corporatization of hospitals. While technically non-profit, hospitals have increasingly behaved like profit-making corporations. At the end of September 2022, Montefiore was sitting on $1.3 billion in cash and investments, while Mount Sinai had $2.6 billion at the end of 2020. They have massive Wall Street and foreign investments with enormous profits and hefty executive compensation packages.

Tax filings for 2020 show that Montefiore invested  $199 million in “limited partnerships” like madge funds and private equity. Mount Sinai reported $68 million in investments in “Central America and the Caribbean,” which typically are in tax shelters like the Cayman Islands.

They also sport huge executive salaries. Mount Sinai CEO Kenneth Davis made $5.6 million in 2019, the last year for which complete tax records are available.  Montefiore CEO Philip Ozuah made $7.4 million in 2020.. Montefiore provided an unnamed executive (or executives) with a chauffeur and first-class airfare in 2020.

In filings with the IRS, Mount Sinai disclosed that 15 executives made more than $1 million annually in 2019. Ten executives at Montefiore each made more tan $1.5 million in 2020.

Meanwhile, as executive compensation and profits soared, charity care at Mount Sinai has been reduced by nearly half as a percentage of its total expenses over the past decade.. Charity care provides free or discounted care to those in poverty, a key justification for the massive tax breaks nonprofit hospitals receive. Montefiore registered a  23 percent reduction in charity care spending as a percentage of expenses during the same period.

Against this record of massive profits and huge executive compensation packages, the demands of the nurses pale by comparison.

NY  Times, 1/9; The Lever, 1//10; NY Times, print edition, 1/13

NYC municipal retirees march down Broadway this week protesting the city’s ongoing campaign to push them into a for-profit, privatized Medicare Advantage plan. Photos by Joe Maniscalco

By Joe Maniscalco

New York City Mayor Eric Adams and the heads of the Municipal Labor Committee [MLC] can expect to catch a lot more hell from municipal retirees refusing to be pushed into a for-profit, privatized, Medicare Advantage plan.

Roughly one-hundred determined retirees, some of them 80-plus, rallied outside the UFT headquarters at 52 Broadway on Wednesday afternoon before marching onto the MLC offices at 55 Water Street.

“I want to keep the Medicare Senior Care I have now,” 74-year-old DC 37 retiree Aurea A. Mangual told Work-Bites. “I fear I’m not gonna be covered for the Medicare benefits that I have — and these [insurance] people are going to be denying me like they deny other people. If I need an MRI, if I need an echo cardiogram — they’re gonna start denying me, and by the time they approve it — it may be too late for me.”

Mangual recently spent 10 days in the hospital after suffering a heart attack. She spent another nine days hospitalized after complications from a certain medication caused unexpected bleeding and required a blood transfusion.

“I’m due for another surgery,” Mangual said. “I was never sick before, but now I’m starting to feel old, I guess. Everything is falling down, and even though I try to take care of my health, if it runs in the family, things happen.”

Dr. Donald E. Moore is an attending physician at NY Methodist Hospital, as well as a teacher at Weill Cornell Medical College, NYU and Hunter College. He is also board member of the New York Metro chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program.

On Wednesday, he told retirees they can expect to lose portability, access and choice if the Adams administration and the heads of the MLC are successful in pushing them into a for-profit, privatized Medicare Advantage plan.

“There’s so many plans — hundreds of those Part C plans, which means every doctor can’t be in every plan,” Dr. Moore said. “You may find one of your doctors in a plan. But the doctor [your other] doctor wants to refer you to, or you want to go to, will not be in your plan.”

“Fragmenting” traditional Medicare, Dr. Moore added, will only end up costing municipal retirees more money they can ill afford on limited incomes.

More than a year fighting against Medicare Advantage in the courts and on the streets has left many municipal retirees wondering who the heads of the MLC — UFT President Michael Mulgrew, DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido and Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association President Harry Nespoli — actually represent.

“We need to let Michael Mulgrew know he is representing us — not Mayor Adams and his desire to save on healthcare costs,” Cross-Union Retirees Organizing Committee [CROC] organizer Sarah Shapiro told the rally. “I think Mike Mulgrew has lost his way; he’s not quite sure what his role is. Is he representing us and the in-service workers — or is he working behind closed doors with Mayor Adams — the so-called arbitrator Martin Sheinman, who has absolutely no jurisdiction over any of this right at this moment — and Henry Garrido and Harry Nespoli.”

Work-Bites reached out to the heads of the MLC for comment, but has not received a response.

“What we really need after a year of bitter fighting about this — is a time-out,” fellow CROC member Martha Cameron said this week.

The organization — one of a large group of New York City retiree organizations fighting to maintain their traditional Medicare coverage — supports a proposal to utilize a half-billion-dollars over the next two years from the city’s Retiree Health Benefits Trust to shore up the ailing Health Insurance Stabilization Fund — from which roughly $1 billion was diverted during the Bill de Blasio era to help pay for UFT raises.

With the Health Stabilization Fund replenished, retirees say the city can then pursue real cost-cutting measures that don’t involve throwing municipal workers under the bus. Those measures include:

*Setting up a municipal self-insurance plan for all active workers, retirees and their dependents.

*Requiring lower costs from private hospitals.

*Consolidating union welfare fund drug plans to better negotiate lower rates for all.

*Auditing current insurance providers for fraud and waste.

*Clamping down on bad insurance management and inefficiencies.

“These are just some of the ways that we can make a longterm solution to these rising healthcare costs,” Cameron continued. “If we go with the plan the MLC and the city are currently fighting for — we do not solve the issue of the Stabilization Fund being used as a slush fund.”

Despite her health challenges, Mangual remains Associate Vice-President for Inter-Union Relations at the DC 37 Retirees Association.

On Wednesday, she reiterated a call made at an earlier DC Retirees Association meeting for members to stop donating to the group’s political action committee.

“Do not give them any more money,” she said, “because we don’t want them to use our money to help political people coming up, while they are hurting the retirees and [active] members.

A tentative agreement between two unions and the University of California may end the largest strike in the history of higher education, although the agreement must still be ratified by the unions’ membership. The vote taking place the week of Dec. 19 involves 48,000 teaching assistants and other graduate school workers – members of two unions affiliated with the United Auto Workers – who walked off the job Nov. 14. It had the support of most of the faculty and undergraduate students at the university’s campuses around the state.

Union leaders who were involved in the bargaining and the University of California officials hailed the agreement but some rank-and-file leaders were critical, which casts some doubt on its ratification. Under the proposed agreement the  lowest paid academic student employees, whose starting salary is $23,000, will get substantial pay raises of up to 55 percent over the next two and half years. There will also be increased health care and child care benefits.

The university of California relies heavily on graduate student workers in doing important lab research, grading papers, and providing instruction. California Governor Gavin Newsom expressed relief at the proposed pact.  A state budget agreement this year guaranteed funding increases for the university system for the next five years which, Newsom said, should pay for the cost of the new contracts without a tuition increase for students.

The pact has nation-wide implications. Graduate student workers are organizing into unions around the country, reacting to the fact that American universities have increasingly come to rely on graduate students to teach classes and handle other duties traditionally done by tenured faculty, with only a fraction of the pay and benefits. This yea alone graduate student employees at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Clark University, Fordham University, New Mexico State University, Washington State University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute all voted in favor of unionization.

The proposed contract has raised some opposition among union members who plan to vote “no” on it. While Rafael Jaime, president of one of the two UAW bargaining units involved in the negotiations, touted Friday’s agreement as a “historic” win, opponents of the pact urged its rejection. Their principal criticism is that the wage benefits won’t fully take place until the latter part of 2024 and would do little for academic workers living in high rent areas like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area where many UC campuses are located. They charge that the contract abandoned the key demand to link wage gains and housing costs.

The vote ratification process will end Dec. 23.

NY Times, 12/16; Los Angeles Times, 12/16

Striking workers at HarperCollins, one of the nations largest publishers, got a big boost in early December from over 500 leading authors. In a letter to the company, they expressed strong support for the workers in the editorial, marketing, design, and other departments who have been out on strike since Nov. 10.

Signers of the letter include Barbara Kingsolver, Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, and others including HarperCollins own authors and those associated with other publishers. “We stand with the people who mold and champion our work and ask that they be compensated justly and fairly for their labor,” the authors wrote. “We express deep concern about the long-term impact on our books and careers if the strike continues. Your refusal to reach an agreement with the union hurts us, your creators.” They vowed not to submit their work to HarperCollins until it reaches an agreement with the union.

The workers are demanding better pay, stronger union protections, and better family leave policies.

NPR, 12/8

In response to the attack on her and teachers unions, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten responded forcefully to the slander by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that she, not any of the world’s dictators is “the most dangerous person in the world.” In an interview with Semafor, Pompeo claimed that teachers’ unions are the most dangerous because “the filth they they’re teaching out kids, and the fact that they don’t know math and reading or writing.”

“We fight for what kids and communities need,” Weingarten responded. In contrast with Pompeo who ran errands for Trump, pleasing dictators around the world, she said, her union fights for schools “that are safe and welcoming where kids learn how to think and work with others” and “against this kind of rhetoric and hate. Maybe spend a minute in one of the classrooms with my members and their students and you will get a real lesson in the promise and potential of America.”

Pompeo’s attack is another shot in the right-wing assault on public schools, teachers’ unions and inclusive curriculum. Across the country, they are campaigning to impose broad censorship of curriculum and books that do not reflect their view of the world and attacking teachers and school employees who do not reflect their thinking.

Common Dreams, 11/22

Four days after he pushed  a law through the Ontario legislature outlawing labor’s right to strike, the governor was forced to announce its repeal. The humiliating retreat by the governor, Doug Ford was the result of a general strike call announced by the Canadian province’s labor movement set to begin Nov. 14.

Ford had rammed through the law in the face of stalled negotiations with the union which represents school employees other than teachers – education assistants, library workers, administrative assistants, custodians, early childhood educators, cafeteria workers, safety monitors, and social workers. In October after  months of fruitless talks, the union, the Ontario School Board Council of Unions, voted 96.5 percent in favor of a strike. The strike took place anyway, amid threats that it was illegal and the unionbusting law would be enforced.

In response, the threat of a general strike against the law spread through the province rapidly as people rallied to the side of the union. Thousands joined the pickets Members of other unions were calling on their unions to join the strike. A committee was formed to plan a general strike. And finally Ford collapsed. He announced that the law would be repealed.

What a lesson in worker solidarity.

Labor Notes, 11/1

With tens of thousands of workers at the state’s university campuses still on strike, negotiations continue between the unions, affiliated with the United Auto Workers and the administration of the University of California. The strike, which began Nov. 14, involves some 48,000 teaching assistants, lab assistants, researchers and other UC employees.

Striking academic workers on the University of California, Berkeley, campus.
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

At issue is pay which currently averages only $24,000 a year. Teaching assistants say that their rent alone takes up close to 60 percent of their wages. The university has offered an increase of only 5 percent the first year and 3 percent afterward which the union flatly rejected.

Campuses in the university system from Berkeley to San Diego were being picketed and many faculty members cancelled classes or transferred to Zoom rather than cross picket lines. “We’re the backbone of the university,” said Rafael Jaime, a doctoral student and president of UAW Local 2865, representing 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors, tutors, and other classroom workers. “We’re the ones who perform the majority of the teaching and the majority of the research.”

Graduate students have long been a way universities have avoided hiring more higher paid, tenured professors and saving money. Over the past year, these grad students around the country have voted to unionize and engage in collective bargaining to improve their conditions. They have successfully negotiated contracts at Columbia University and New York University and are seeking recognition at a number of other campuses.

NY Times, 11/14, KRON 4, 11/21

In the current tight labor market, an area that is currently coming under increasing scrutiny is the pay of workers who rely on tips for a living. Existing labor laws, both federal and in all but eight states, substantially modify prevailing minimum wage requirements. In these states, employers can pay tipped workers subminimum wages, resulting, in some cases, for the minimum wage for tipped workers to be as low as $2.13 an hour.

This has mostly affected workers in the restaurant industry where wages remain low and workers complain that they are often cheated by their employers out of their rightful tips, usually added onto credit cards. Many are immigrants who fear that there may be repercussions if they challenge employers they feel are withholding their tips. There are so many cases of employers cheating tipped workers that one former official of the Labor Department, David Weil, who headed the Wage and Hour Division, declared, “It’s baked into the model. And it’s very problematic.”

In some places, there have been steps to meet the problem. Michigan will scrap its subminimum $3.75 cents an hour for tipped workers in February. They will now be covered by the state regular minimum wage, set to rise from $9.87 to $12 an hour. Portland, Maine, has a referendum on the ballot this year to end subminimum base pay and raise the regular minimum wage to $18 an hour over a three year period. And the District of Columbia also has a ballot proposal to end the subminimum wage.

NY Times, 10/13

Nurses at the University of Michigan hospital won a big victory Oct. 1 when they approved a contract with management that ends the impossible burden placed on them caused by the shortage of nurses nationwide.

That shortage has resulted in nurses working in extra-long shifts and neglect of the patients they serve. Their schedules were consistently changed and the hospital created an uncompensated on-call system and mandatory overtime. It became a routine strategy for the hospital to try to resolve the perpetual understaffing of nurses.

After six months of difficult negotiations and the threat of a strike, a contract was finally agreed upon and ratified by the nurses. It provides that nurses will not be used to resolve issues of short staffing; it was management’s responsibility to resolve the problem but not on the backs of its nurses.

“Our job is to take care of patients,” said Renee Curtis, president of the 6,200 member Michigan Nurses Association-University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council. “Our job is not to worry about who is being hired or how to hire or how to retain staff. That is management’s job.”

The problem dates back to the 1980s with the corporate takeover of health care systems and staff cutting became a way to cut costs and increase profits. Nurses have been demanding that staffing reflect a realistic nurse-to-patient ratio that accurately reflect the number of patients a nurse can care for. Otherwise, declared union member Anne Jackson, you’re just “running room to room putting out fires.” Another commented, “It can feel a lot of times in our health care system like nobody really gets the care that they deserve.”

This new Michigan contract breaks the ground for other nurses actions that can result in better patient care.

Jacobin, 10/8